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'Art-speak' PART One: A return to common sense?

Updated: Nov 18, 2020

by Team IMA

The isolation we're all dealing with this year has already had profound effects. As artists, one of those things we're starting to think about is the social impact of our practice - not just the impact of our work, but the impact showing our work has on us as individuals. Whilst we can always find solace in our practice and studios, it has usually been balanced by our interactions with peers, friends, and the public. We're starting to understand that exhibiting work is not just an outlet to get our work seen, but it is also our chance to get back into the world.

Never has an audience been more vital. With galleries now opening up and artists looking to showcase their work, we are starting to think about how we can engage our audiences, invite them to stay longer, inspire them, give them an experience; as thanks, for choosing to spend their precious time with our work.

BUT, there is always one thing that gets in the way... the (dreaded) artist statement.

You don't want to do it... But you know you sort of have to do it (the art-world equivalent of pulling teeth).

But before you hastily rush off and look through a thesaurus, swap some words around, and change the dates, stop for a second and think about this: Today, when we need to engage and invite our audience more than ever, the artist statement is something that may be as divisive as ever, because when it comes to alienation; we need not look much further than the artist statement.

This blog is in 2-parts.

PART 1 - IMA's Mark shares his thoughts on why we need a more common-sense approach to artist statements

PART 2 - IMA's Amit gives some helpful tips on 'how to get out of your own way' when it comes to your artist statement

PART 1: Is it time to say goodbye to artist’s statements for their work?

The following are actual examples of artist statements by artists exhibiting at 'La Biennale di Venezia' 2019

"...which builds a structure and conceptualisation derived from scientific and cultural discourses... presented as process in which gaze is de-colonized."
"...the performance is a time-based event cutting the edge of time and projecting it into non-ritual space of density and meaningfulness, photography produces singularities of an absolute past that becomes perennial.”

If, like me, you find the above baffling and are tired of some of the gibberish that passes for meaning in the art world, then perhaps you will agree that we need a more common-sense approach to artist statements.

Photo by Adrianna Calvo from Pexels

So, you had the idea, you’ve made the work and you’ve got the show, but hang on - what about the artist statement? Most artists hate writing them. - “I want to let the work speak for itself” they complain. But no, the curator at the gallery or museum insist that the audience will want to know more about your intentions, your process, your influences etc. So between you and the curator (or gallery, or museum), you put together something that may or may not clarify things.

At their worst artist statements are pretentious and obfuscate rather than make clear the artist’s intentions: dressing up thin ideas in a language that alienates many and give some the impression that modern art is nonsense. If an artwork itself is complex then surely a clearly written, concrete accompaniment is needed, not something that is even more abstract and convoluted.

IMA bod Amit went so far as to focus his visit to the 2019 Venice Biennale around the artists statements themselves, and tweeted out his interpretations, offering up 'translations' for the art-speak he encountered.

A lot of art creation is intuitive and defies explanation. How to write about pure abstraction or to explain an instrumental composition? Isn’t it a little odd to use one media to explain another media? Drawings to interpret music? Dance to explain painting? If we are visual people perhaps we don’t express ourselves best in text form. See ekphrasis (in links below).

We should think carefully before employing a language that deliberately excludes a large chunk of the population. Are you trying to communicate that some people are just not clever enough to understand your work? That only art university graduates are welcome? Who benefits from the mystification of art? Perhaps it is the galleries themselves filtering out the great unwashed, the uneducated low-income crowd that can’t afford to buy the art. After all, who needs them cluttering up the place, drinking your Prosecco?

Many sub-cultures use a language that excludes, that only the initiated may fully understand. Think physicists, computer programmers, skateboarders etc. But our job as artists is to communicate ideas not just to other artists but to the wider world. And if we’re being honest, when it comes to the dense, affected texts we see too often, most of the artists don’t understand it either, it’s just we don’t always want to admit it.

The pretentious, jargon-heavy wall texts or gallery hand-outs shouldn’t be used to dress up some weak art. It can feel like the artist is scared the work won’t hold up on its own so we need to know they have read Heidegger and it is meaningful in some way. Perhaps the text is being employed to sprinkle a little magic dust on something that doesn’t stand up on its own? But I hope that most of us see through that. After all, a turd is still a turd no matter how much you polish it.

Interestingly the source of this prose style can be traced back to the 1970s when a lot of French and German art theory was translated into English giving the text its sometimes tortured construction. It has become what is now referred to as International Art English (IAE) which itself stems from an essay written by David Levine and Alix Rule who examined a number of articles posted on e-Flux (link below). You can also read their full piece below.

From the essay:

"IAE has a distinctive lexicon: aporia, radically, space, proposition, biopolitical, tension, transversal, autonomy. An artist’s work inevitably interrogates, questions, encodes, transforms, subverts, imbricates, displaces—though often it doesn’t do these things so much as it serves to, functions to, or seems to (or might seem to) do these things."

@FineArtThesis - an art speak bot created by IMA's Amit that spews out tongue-in-cheek (yet often eerily plausible) art-speak-esque thesis titles.

Once you put your work in a gallery you are already excluding people. I’ve invigilated enough shows to witness people’s reluctance to pass over the threshold and into the world of modern art. There is the perception that you need an art degree to understand what the artist is trying to say and this isn’t helped by a complicated artist’s statement.

The way in which we frame and express our work and ourselves has an impact on those around us. It can be oppressive and excluding when we use a language that most people don’t have access to. Is there anything wrong with using simple language to illuminate complex ideas? I don’t think so. As George Orwell said in his essay Politics and the English Language - “never use a long word where a short one will do.”

It’s fine to give us some insight into the methods employed, the materials used or the inspiration behind it - we shouldn’t expect the artist to be fully aware of all of the influences and potential readings - that’s part of the fun of looking at art. But when it comes to the artist statement, please let’s stop signposting the artist’s academic credentials and mystifying the whole process and communicate in a clearer and concise manner.

Follow on to PART 2 to learn how to tackle writing your artist statement.

Team IMA

re-IMAgining the art world


PART 1 Links:

N.B. Perhaps the art-text is just a little too easy to parody, as these online resources for instantly creating your own Frankenstein monster of an artist statement attest.

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